Thursday, September 26, 2013

Soundbites about Priests and Bishops

Further to the post on the Pope, I will now cover bishops and priests.  This is very much something that children encounter on a regular basis and it is good to know about them.  Who knows, you may have a future priest or bishop lurking among your lot!

Again, this is not intended as a session by itself.  It will help you with any questions that emerge from the children.  It will also help with your self-confidence, which is half the game in facilitating sessions with children.

The scope here is especially wide as I hope to cover almost all scenarios that you would encounter in your church.  Covering all would be virtually impossible in a small post like this.  Please pick those relevant to your parish or diocese and the rest are nice to know.

So read on and let me know if there is anything else that you think would be useful to know.


The bishop is the head of all Catholics in a particular area known as a diocese.  All Catholics in the world come under a bishop.  And every bishop is linked to the Pope, and through him to all other bishops in the world.  In that way, every Catholic is in communion with all other Catholics in the world through their communion with their bishop and his communion with the Pope and the other bishops.  Your bishop is your door to the Universal Church.

The bishop has the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Order and only bishops can administer all sacraments.  Priests cannot administer the sacrament of Hole Orders.

You refer to the bishop as "Your Grace" or "His Grace".

There are currently just over 5,000 Catholic bishops throughout the world.  There are Catholic bishops in almost every country in the world.

Duties of a bishop
The bishop's primary responsibility is to teach the faith and to govern his diocese.  He is also the primary liturgist in his diocese and will decide how liturgies are to be performed, with reference to Church laws, of course.

He is the only one in the diocese who can ordain any man to the diaconate and the priesthood.  He is also the only one who can confirm Catholics in the sacrament of Confirmation but he is allowed to delegate this task to priests, who normally confirms adults at the same service as when they are baptised.


The bishop is assisted by some priests in the governance of the diocese.  They may be selected to a Senate, or a college of consultors, whom the bishop consults before making any major decisions.  The college of consultors also elects a priest to be an administrator when there is no bishop (if the bishop dies, for instance) until the Pope appoints a new bishop.  Some of the older dioceses may have a cathedral chapter of priests called Canons, who advises the bishop.  

While the Church is clearly not a democracy (it is definitely a monarchy with the bishop in the position of the king), the bishop hears the voice of the people through these advisers when making his decisions, if not hearing it directly from the people.

A diocese is an area under the jurisdiction of a bishop.  It normally takes on the name of the main city of the diocese.  In the early days of the Church, the bishop is normally located in the town, and from there he sends priests out to the rural areas.  The bishop is considered to be married to the Church, and in the early days, to his diocese specifically.  That was why most bishops in those days do not get transferred or promoted to another larger diocese as that would be adultery.


When Christianity became the official religion in the Roman Empire, the Church was organised along the same lines as the administrative boundaries of the Empire.  So, every provincial governor had a bishop as his religious counterpart.  After the Empire collapsed, only the bishop remained as the authority in the diocese.  To this day, some of the ancient dioceses in Italy retain those boundaries.

Every diocese have a cathedral, which can be considered the parish church of the bishop.  The word cathedral comes from the Latin word for chair.  At the right hand side of every cathedral (right side of Jesus on the crucifix), there is a chair, which is the throne of the bishop. So, the cathedral is the seat of the bishop.


There are today 2,845 Catholic dioceses throughout the world, each one having at least one bishop.  Larger dioceses are known as archdioceses (more about archdiocese and archbishops later), and there are 640 of them included in the number above.

Dioceses vary in sizes.  Some of the ancient dioceses around Italy and the Mediterranean have only a few thousand Catholics.  They were set up when those towns were large cities in the Roman Empire.  There is a town in Wales, St Asaph, which has an Anglican bishop and a cathedral but too small to have a train station - it was probably a large town once upon a time.  On the other end of the scale, I believe the largest diocese is the Archdiocese of Mexico City with 7 million Catholics and the Archbishop there is assisted by nine bishops!

Apostolic Succession
In the Westminster Cathedral in London, there is a plague on the right side of the church (right side of Jesus on the crucifix, left side as you enter the front door) next to the bookstore.  This plague lists the names of all the heads of the Church in England & Wales and the name of the Pope next to each one. The list stretches back to the first Pope, St Peter, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine of Canterbury. 

All this in one single unbroken line. It tells us that the current Archbishop of Westminster teaches the same faith taught by the current Pope and that both of them teaches the same faith that has been handed down through the line of all the Popes from St Peter himself, who was taught the faith by Jesus himself.

This handing down of the faith is known as the Apostolic Succession.  Paul took great pains in the Bible to remind his readers that he teaches the same faith as St Peter, the first Pope.  It is very important to Catholics to emphasise that our faith is the same as the one taught by Jesus himself, in one single unbroken line of bishops handing down the faith.

The handing down is evident in the rite to consecrate a bishop.  Every Catholic bishop we have today was made a bishop by the laying of hands by three bishops (legally, only one is required to consecrate a bishop), who themselves were made bishops by the laying of hands by three bishops, who themselves ...... until we have a bishop who was made bishop by the laying of hands by the Apostles, who were made bishops by Jesus.


Every diocese has a secret archive, in which is kept, among other things, the list of all bishops ever since the diocese was established.  This list is important.  As a friend of mine  said when I explained it to her, its like knowing who your father is.

What a bishop wears
The most distinctive part of the bishop's vestment is his headgear, called the mitre, worn only by the bishop when he is presiding at mass.  In the Western Church, it is in the shape of a triangle, said to represent the Trinity, while those in the East are in the shape of crown with a cross on top.  The mitre is generally white in colour and may be adorned with gold or precious stones. 


When presiding at mass in his own diocese, he also carries a crosier, which is the tall staff with a hook at the end.  This is a shepherd's crook, which a shepherd uses to hook any straying sheep by the neck.  It of course symbolises the bishop's role as the shepherd of his flock.  The bishop normally holds it in his left hand (with the crook facing the people) so that he can use his right hand for blessings.

  In addition to the crosier, the bishop is also given an episcopal ring at his consecration as bishop.  Bishops are known to wear episcopal rings since the seventh century to symbolise their mystical marriage to the Church.  Other than rings that a bishop buys himself or is given, all rings are deemed property of the Church and a bishop will inherit the ring collection of his predecessor.  As such, some of these rings may date back many centuries.  Some of the older rings can be quite large as the bishop wears it outside his episcopal gloves.  It is customary for Catholics to kiss the ring of a bishop to symbolise our obedience and communion with him, and through him, the Pope and the rest of the Church.


When at mass, the bishop wears the normal vestments of a priest (with addition of his mitre and crosier) except that his cassock (the outer robe) is purple in colour.  Purple was the colour of royalty because in ancient times, it was the most expensive colour to make as it is grounded from rare seashells.  Over the cassock, he will have a pectoral cross, a large cross with a long chain that leaves it hanging on his belly.  The bishop has to kiss the cross before saying a prayer while he puts it on.


Outside of mass, the bishop normally wears a cassock like a priest do, except that he often have a purple sash around his waist to denote that he is a bishop.  At formal functions, he also wear a purple skull cap called a zuchetto.

Archbishops, Primates and Patriarchs
As mentioned earlier, archbishops are bishops of larger dioceses called archdioceses.  Most archdioceses have smaller dioceses attached to them within what is known as an ecclesiastical (another word for church) province.  The archbishops of such archdioceses have the rank of a Metropolitan while the bishops in those dioceses are called suffragan  bishops.  Other than honorary role of precedence over procession and presiding over meetings of bishops, he may also be required to supervise the faith in the suffragan dioceses or step in if any of them falls vacant.  Archdioceses without suffragans are known as independent archdioceses and are normally in smaller countries such as the Archdiocese of Singapore and the Archdiocese of Luxembourg.

Primates are archbishops of the oldest diocese in some of the older European countries.  For instance: Lyons (France), Canterbury (England), Armagh (Ireland).  The title is now purely honorary.


Patriarchs used to hold important positions in the Church, there being five ancient patriarchates: Rome, Constantinopole (modern day Istanbul in Turkey), Alexandria (in Egypt), Antioch (in Syria) and Jerusalem.  They have jurisdiction over all bishops in their territory.  In the modern Catholic Church, only the six Eastern Catholic patriarchs retain such authority.  The Pope is the Patriarch of the West, although he doesn't officially use the title anymore.  There are other Latin patriarchs (eg., Venice, Lisbon, Goa) but they are purely honorary and are really archbishops.

When many bishops gather together for a mass, the order that they enter the church is strictly set out.  Cardinals take first precedence (more about them in another post), then patriarchs, archbishops and bishops.  Within each, there may be sub-ranks, and within them, ranking are by the order when they were consecrated. 


Auxiliary, Coadjutors and Bishops Emeritus
Bishops may sometimes have assistant bishops to help him, particularly if the diocese is big or he is not fully fit or healthy.  Such bishops are called auxiliary bishops and some of them eventually gets transferred to head a diocese of their own.  A coadjutor is an auxiliary with the right to succeed to head the diocese if the bishop retires or dies.  


After retirement, bishops are known as bishops/archbishops/patriarchs (and now Pope) emeritus.  While they still have the fullness of sacrament and can ordain priests for instance, they perform any such work under the direction of the incumbent bishop.  There can sometimes be more than one bishop emarati in a single diocese - I believe the Archdiocese of Taipei holds the record with four archbishop emarati simultaneously.

Titular bishops
A titular bishop is an interesting position.  They are bishops who do not have the responsibility of a diocese.  Many of them are auxiliary bishops (the responsibility belongs to their boss) but there are also bishops who work in the central Church offices in Rome called the Curia.  All Vatican ambassadors, for instance, have the rank of archbishops. 

As all bishops are deemed married to a diocese, these bishops takes on the title of an extinct diocese.  These are dioceses that existed at one time but are now suppressed (a technical term for no longer functional).  This could be because the city was destroyed (eg., Carthage, the capital of the Roman Empire in North Africa), or has fallen to non-Christians (eg, the diocese of Bethlehem).  There are 2,000 such dioceses in the Catholic Church today, of which a few hundred have a titular bishop.  Many of them are in Turkey and North Africa.

If your diocese has an auxiliary bishop, ask him for the name of his titular diocese.


We all know priests as the guy who says mass.  They are the cornerstone of Catholic life in most parishes.  Priests in the technical sense also include all the bishops.  There are currently over 400,000 Catholic priests throughout the world, a ratio of one priest to every 3,000 Catholics.


Priests are a later addition to the Catholic hierarchy, after bishops and deacons.  In the beginning, only the bishop says mass and he does this in the main town of the area.  As the communities grows, more people comes from the countryside for mass.  Eventually, it gets too big and the bishop sends priests out to the countryside to say mass on Sundays.  It is therefore not a coincidence that pastors and pastoral (countryside) are similar words.


Priests differ from pastors in many of the other Christian denominations who have pastors but not priests.  Only priests offer sacrifices, and that distinction exist in other religions as well (Jews have rabbis but no longer have priests because sacrifices can only be offered in the Temple and the Temple does not exist anymore).  The other Christian denominations who do not have priests do not believe in reliving the sacrifice of Jesus in their Sunday service but they celebrate the Lord's Supper in a different way.


In the Western Catholic Church, priests are not married although there are exceptions.  For instance, we recently have had married former Anglican priests who are accepted into the Catholic Church and ordained as married Catholic priests.  Eastern Catholic priests may be married but they generally are not allowed to remarry if their wives die.  Catholic bishops, whether Eastern or Western, are always unmarried (having said that, the first Pope was married).

Duties and training
The main duties of the priest centres around the sacraments.  They say mass, perform baptism, anointing of the sick, marriages and hear confessions.  In addition to that, they also counsel and help Catholics grow in faith.


Those who are pastors have the responsibility of administering a parish.  Some of the larger parishes may also have one or more assistant parish pastor.

Priests are trained in a seminary and the length of their training differs the world over but are typically seven to eight years.  In most places, priests are required to obtain a degree in Catholic philosophy and/or theology before they can be ordained.  In addition, there is a lot of spiritual formation as well as training in people, social, counselling and practical skills.


At the end of their training, they are ordained to the priesthood by a bishop, who lays his hands on him.

Parishes are that community of Catholics whose care have been entrusted to a pastor.  Most parishes are territorial in nature and all Catholics will belong to one territorial parish.  There is nothing in Catholic law, however, that require us to only attend mass in the parish where we reside.  Parishes, however, often have rules on territoriality for such administrative matters as where people can go to Sunday School, get married, etc.


The largest Catholic parish in the world is in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where there are 300,000 Catholics administered by 10 priests in a single parish.  This resulted from the authorities' refusal to allow the opening of more parishes to accommodate the exclusively expatriate Catholic community.

In addition, there are also parishes for specific ethnic groups, colleges or the military.  The pastors for such parishes are normally called chaplains.

Diocesan and religious priests
Some priests, about a third of all priests, belong to a religious order.  They normally do not engage in parish work, but work in areas that their order specialises in, called an apostolate. 

Members of an order are often required to live in a community set up by their order.  At least three members are needed before a community can be established but some can grow to several dozens.  Dining halls in such communities remind me of a college cafeteria.


Religious priests take three vows on joining their orders: (i) the vow of chastity - they are to remain celibate and may not marry; (ii) the vow of poverty - they do not possess anything or draw a salary but will get everything they need to live on from their orders; (iii) the vow of obedience - to the Church and to their superiors.

The other priests, about two thirds of them, are diocesan priests who are responsible to the bishops for the running of parishes.  They normally do not get sent outside their dioceses.  At their ordination, they promise to be celibate and obedient to their bishops.

What a priest wear
The priest wears a plain loose-fitting ankle-length robe called a cassock, either white (in tropical countries) or black (in temperate climates).  In the Roman Empire, men were dressed in robes and trousers were only introduced with the barbarian invasions.  Many religious orders have their own 'uniform' called a habit, which the priest may then wear at mass.  Those of Franciscans, for instance, are very distinct and are brown in colour.


Every priest at mass wears a stole, which is a broad piece of cloth draped around his shoulders and down the front of his chest.  It symbolises the cross which Jesus had to carry across his shoulders and is normally decorated with crosses or the fish and bread symbols of the Eucharist.  The colour changes with the liturgical seasons.  Deacons wear the stole like a sash, over his left shoulder across his chest.  The stole is given to the priest and deacon at their ordination as a sign of their Holy Orders.


The garment that we see a priest wearing at mass is an outer garment called at chasuble, worn only at mass.  It is an oval shaped cloth with a hole in the middle through which the head goes.  It is in the liturgical colours and not intended to be too elaborate in decoration.  It goes over the cassock and stole.  In simpler masses outside the church, say, during camps or at a house mass where space is limited, the chasuble is sometimes dispensed with.


The cassock may be belted at the waist with a sash, normally black, called a fascia.  Otherwise, a cincture is used, which is a small rope that symbolises the bonds with which Jesus was bound when arrested.  The stole is normally tucked under the cincture.  Underneath the cassock, priests normally wear his daily clothes but if it is too hot, he makes do with a tunic.


The vesting of priests and bishops before they say mass is an elaborate affair and the vestments are required to be put on in a specified order.  With each vestment put on, the priest or bishop says a prescribed prayer.

At some liturgical celebrations other than mass, like the Benediction, the priest or bishop may wear an elaborate cape called a cope.


A Roman collar is a white detachable collar, made of linen or cotton and buttoned to the priest's shirt or black cassock worn as part of his daily clothing.  If the priest is wearing a white cassock, a Roman collar is of course not necessary.  It just denotes that he is a priest and despite its name, is Anglican in origin.  Interesting fact that I just found out.

Deacons are the junior tier of the Holy Orders, which also includes priests and bishops.  They assist at mass with the tasks of reading the Gospel, and if delegated, delivering the homily and dismissing the congregation at the end of mass.  They can also administer baptism and preside at funerals that do not involve a mass but cannot hear confessions, celebrate mass, marry people or anoint the sick as a priest does.


All priests are ordained as deacons as the final step before the priesthood.  As such, their diaconate are called a transitory diaconate.  You address a deacon formally as "Rev Mr"  or "Deacon".  In conversation, you never refer to a deacon as Father but Deacon.  Many people, though, will call a deacon, Brother.


Some dioceses have permanent deacons, who are men who chooses not to be ordained priests.  They assist in parishes or other work as directed by the bishops.  Some of them may have another job outside the Church and are therefore, part-time deacons.  Married men can be ordained to be a permanent deacon but may not marry if their wives die.  Wives of such permanent deacons sometimes undergo similar training to a deacon and are often considered a partner in his ministry.


The Bible tells us that deacons were originally appointed to assist the first bishops, the Apostles, to distribute alms to the poor and free up the Apostles to concentrate on preaching.  They include St Stephen, who was the first martyr.  The Bible also refers to women deaconesses and named one of them as Phoebe but there remains today much debate over the actual roles of these deaconesses.

Vicars-General, Monsignors
A Vicar-General is a priest who is appointed by the bishop as his deputy, normally for administrative purposes.  There must be at least one but there may be more than one Vicars-General.  None of them would have episcopal powers, for instance to ordain, if they are not bishops themselves.

An Episcopal Vicar is like a vicar-General but with authority over only a geographical area or a specific group of people as determined by the bishop.  All auxiliary bishops are at least episcopal vicars.  Vicars-general and episcopal vicars hold office for a specific period or until the diocese falls vacant.


Some priests have the honorary title of a Monsignor, which means literally means My Lord (as in a lordship, not Jesus).  There is no authority attached to this title and is given by the Pope in recognition of services rendered, normally as recommended by the bishop.   They are considered members of the Papal Household.  Vicars-general are normally Monsignori (pl of Monsignor).  They are referred to as Rev Monsignor and you call them Monsignor.

Religious institutes

All religious priests mentioned earlier belong to a religious institute.  These religious institutes normally focus on a single apostolate, which is what their area of specialism is called.  Apostolates are normally in areas of prayer, missionary work, preaching, education, health or media, for instance.  Most institutes are international in scope and so their members can be sent anywhere in the world.


There are some 750,000 female religious in the world together with some 220,000 men, of whom 55,000 are brothers who are not ordained as priests.

Orders and Congregations 
Religious institutes can be orders or congregations.  Those in religious orders take solemn vows while those in congregation take simple vows.  They differ in that, for instance in the vow of poverty, they may not own anything under solemn vows while those under simple vows may not possess anything.  Thus, before taking solemn vows, the person (do we call him or her a vower?) has to sign a will to pass on all his or her possessions to someone else.


The largest order is the Jesuits, the same order that Pope Francis belongs.  There are some 17,000 Jesuits in the Church today.  Their motto is for the Greater Glory of God and as such, are engaged in any work anywhere that the Pope deems necessary.  They are often the most well trained priests in the Church, requiring up to 13 years training before they can get ordained.

Monks and friars are priests who live in monasteries.  They are normally shut away from the rest of the world and some of the more remote ones can be rather self-sustaining.  Their charisma (their area of specialisation) is to pray for the Church.  


Women monks are called nuns.  Orders of nuns that are offshoots of male orders are said to be the Second Orders, the first being the male order.  For instance, the Poor Claires are the second order of Franciscans, St Claire being a close friend of St Francis.

Monks and nuns are said to led cloistered lives because they are enclosed within their own world.  A cloister is an open space surrounded by all four sides by rooms and walls, an apt description of a monastery.


There are also orders known as discalced orders, who goes about their business barefoot or in sandals (discalced means without shoes). 

Some male religious orders partly or wholly comprise men who chose not to be priests.  These men are referred to as brothers.  They often stay as brothers so as to focus on their apostolates and not be encumbered with having to run a parish or prepare for mass, for instance.

There are male religious orders whose do not ordain priests at all.  An example is the de La Salle brothers, whose apostolate is in boy's education.

Nuns and sisters
Members of female religious institutes are referred to as sisters.  Strictly speaking, most of them who we encounter are not nuns.  Nuns stay in a monastery, as do monks, and are normally cut off from the world to spend their lives in prayers.  Sisters on the other hand, live in convents and have regular work within their apostolate such as education, health, etc.

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